Day 1: The troop gathers at the Lam Rim monastery at 10am, finally calm after a flurry of last minute e-mailing, water bottle filling and bag hauling. We are introduced to our new Mongolian friends—two drivers, a security guard, a team of cooks, the Abbot (our quiet and pensive leader), and his daughter and nephew. We talk, sing and play games as we watch the unfamiliar landscape pedal by—pasturelands streaked with electric poles and dotted with wandering horses, goats and cattle. As civilization fades silently into a seemingly endless expanse of land, we keep our gaze on the mountains of rock emerging in the distance. When we reach the first of these amazing formations, Zorgon Hayrhan uul, we stop for lunch. The mini mountains bring out the explorer, or at least the photographer, in each of us, and we immediately set to climbing and snapping pictures. The cooks brew a delicious broth, which they offer alongside deep fried bread, mutton and mashed potatoes, topping off the unexpectedly delicious meal with packaged tiramisu.
In the evening, we stop at a picturesque outdoor monastery, called Baga Gazaryn Chuluu, a playground of rocks and caves a hundred times more vast and breathtaking than our previously-impressive lunch location. Some of us meditate solo as the landscape seems to recommend, while others bond as we watch the sunset sweep across the sky. We help set up tents while the cooks to our surprise whip up some scrumptious spaghetti, bread and tea for dinner.
Day 2: The majority of the day is spent cooped up on the bus. Our attempts to entertain ourselves became slightly more desperate—games of “Would you rather…” topple downhill as we ran out of ideas (Would you rather eat rice or bread? Shoes or boots?) We are temporarily relieved of this condition when our bus stops for fuel in Unstiyn hiyd. The small town appears to specialize in cute children more so than it does gasoline as our tour guides wandered all over town to find that the attendant of the gas station was out in the fields with his family for the day. While waiting for the attendant to return and open up shop, we meet two little boys with toy swords who are willing to put on an impromptu show for us. Some of us toss a Frisbee around with more chubby-cheeked children, while others kick the hacky-sack with the older Mongolians who, it turns out, are better at this American pastime than most of us. After about an hour or so, we wave goodbye to our friends and are herded back onto the bus. As our journey progresses, we begin to see the cows replaced by camels as the air becomes drier and vegetation more sparse. We stop late in the evening at yet another beautiful location in the desert and set up camp. The ground, we soon realize, is covered in chives! Two types, in fact. A smaller, less potent species is favored by the animals, while the fatter kind is more flavorful and people-friendly. Our trusty guide, Oko, tells us that Mongolians gather these herbs in the summer to be pickled and eaten during cold winters as a means of warming the body.
The sunset that night is phenomenal—it seems to be spreading its orange halo just over a nearby hill, and some of us journey towards it as if in a trance, tripping over dead camel remains along the way. We attempt a dance party to the melodies of Safa and Stephanies’s guitars and Nora’s clarinet, then lay down our heads in a circle under the stars as we try to remember campfire songs from childhood. It would be the last time we could sleep soundly in our tents.
Day 3: Our day is set ablaze at the infamous Flaming Cliffs, where dinosaur bones are for sale and pictures are priceless. Limestone and sandstone has preserved some of the world’s greatest fossils, and we learn about early archeological expeditions from a film set up for us in a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt). We are grateful to make our first encounter with modern flushable toilets since leaving Ulaanbaatar. Back on the road, just when we think the day couldn’t possibly have anything greater to offer, a pristine sand dune appears in our path. We throw aside our shoes and take on the Abbot’s challenge to be the first to the top. Safa, with ape-like maneuvering, reigns victorious, with Nat close behind. Those not afraid of a little sand in their undergarments skid down the steeper side of the dune. On the way to Togrogiin Shiree (a notable dinosaur excavation site), our buses both get stuck in the sand, but our team is able to push it out of the rut. Go team!
The evening blows its breath with increasing strength. We begin to hear sand pattering against our tent canvas much like rain, a comforting sound to fall asleep to. However, it is not quite so comforting to wake up to in the middle of the night as the sides of our tents seem to be caving in on us! Some of us sit rubbing our eyes, while more alert people brave the storm and try to tie the tents back together. Several tents rip at the seams, zippers break and others threaten to blow away altogether. Those with unfixable tents move to the bus for the night, which is actually quite cozy, while others manage to hold down their forts even through the real rainstorm that follows. Those who do remain outdoors wake up wet and a little cranky, and some even sick. The Mongolian staff amazes us again with their endless supply of energy and love, as some stay up all night watching over us and adjusting equipment.
Day 4: I suppose the Mongolians felt sorry for us delicate people after the events of the previous night, so they decide to spoil us with a huge and decadent breakfast in a neighboring ger. First comes the toast with jam and nutella, then the warm fried bread, cereal with hot milk, rice soup and steaming bowls of tea and coffee (to which we add nutella, and it almost tastes like mocha). After gaining a few pounds, we are then paraded in circles on the backs of camels. Our first camel riding experience! After only a short drive, we arrive at a ger camp, called Tovshin-2, and are given the rest of the day to do as we please. The camp feels like the ultimate luxury after the tent fiasco, and the cooks, excited to have a real kitchen to work with, begin churning out delicious meal after delicious meal. We spend the remainder of the day reading, jogging, napping, chatting and studying for our paleontology test the following morning.
Day 5: We all ace the test—not one of us got less than A! At noon, we are sorry to leave our beloved camp and its beautiful toilets, but perk up when we find out we are staying at yet another wonderful ger camp, Hongoryn Els, this time for two nights, and that we will only be a hop, skip and a jump from sand dune paradise.
Day 6: After breakfast, we pile onto the buses and set out for the 150 km long Khongor Sand Dunes with high hopes. We are not disappointed. The mountains of sand stand steep and endless, and only the strong and determined are able to huff and puff their way to the top. Previous dune scaling champion Safa is recovering from illness, and Jane is on her second round of whatever is going around. Norah and Lindsey craft a life-sized sand mermaid at the top, and Nat does back flips off the edge for our entertainment. When the time is up, we slide down on plastic sleds and disks. We top off our perfect day with a lengthy evening ride and a square dance at night.
Day 7: At this point, we have become experts at nodding off on the ever-bumping tin can we inhabit for the majority of the day. We hardly stop except to relieve ourselves, and don’t arrive at our destination until well into the evening. Our bus stops in Arvayheer, a provincial capital, and we check into a local hotel, an establishment that makes the gers we stayed in look like the Hilton. There are some cigarette butts lying around and a few mysterious drips coming from the ceiling, but, being the hardy and easygoing travelers that we are, we are able to laugh and enjoy it. At night, some of us try to go dancing, but are only able to get through one song before the club closes at 11. From what I hear, though, it is a grand five minutes in the spotlight, and our own PacRimmers manage to get the whole floor going for the finale.
Day 8: This day is best remembered for the waterfall incident. We leave the Gobi desert, and spend the day watching the landscape change through the window of the bus. The camels are soon replaced by yaks and cows, the chives became grass and suddenly—a river ahead! Since we wanted to get to the Ulaan Tsutgalan Waterfall as soon as possible, even bathroom breaks had been kept to a minimum. Cramped on the bus all day, nothing sounded more blissful to us than a wet, loud, chaotic, free-flowing waterfall. Some of us got a little too excited, stripped down to our underwear and submerged ourselves in the freezing cold water before a shocked Professor Bernard could say “bad idea.” Oops. We had pushed modesty limits a bit too far for this particular culture, and the guilty were sentenced to dish washing duties after a meaningful group discussion.
Day 9: After breakfast and a short bus ride, we stop at the bottom of a small mountain and began to hike. After slight physical exertion, we come upon the outdoor monastery we seek. Tuvhen Monastery is complete with several temples, meditative caves, quiet views, and a sign at the top that reads “Forbidden to Woman.” We are mostly amused. After yesterday’s cultural blunders, we are also slightly comforted to discover that the Mongolian school group that arrived around the same time is significantly more obnoxious than we could ever hope to be, with their shirtless men, loud screams and constant banter. The cooks wait for us at the bottom of the mountain with a lunch of mushroom soup and spaghetti, and we had just begun eating when rain begins to beat down on our lunch party. Then, it hails. Dime sized hail. We just manage to get everyone inside before the clouds really start throwing rocks.
In the evening, we arrive at Khar Khorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia, where we are put up in a rather swanky hotel. After a delicious meal of the “real” Mongolian barbecue , a group called “‘Erdene Zuu’ Group” entertains us with throat singing, deep singing and instruments we have never seen before. Nat gets up to sing one of the songs he had been learning in Mongolian, and the crowd goes wild.
Day 10: Before heading back to Ulaanbaatar, we visit Erdene Zuu Monastery and the remains of what was once Chinggis Khan’s great capital. Feelings are clearly mixed about going back to Ulaanbaatar. Kelsey comments that it was almost hard to enjoy the Gobi adventure knowing that it would have to end so soon. Others are vaguely excited to be able to eat at their favorite restaurants again and settle into the sanctuary of Zaya’s Hostel, but most are generally tired and missing the fresh air already. We also can’t wait to recharge our cameras and coo over the amazing photos we took. But even photos can’t quite capture the vastness of the Gobi and the wonder we felt as witnesses; we hope our minds will remain clear and open as we remember our adventures in the Mongolian countryside and take in new ones.
(Article by Lindsey)